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Liverpool Are Finally Back

Liverpool celebrate one of their many goals against Arsenal. (Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty)

Liverpool haven’t won the league title since before the Premier League even existed, and for the last seven years or so they’ve barely even competed for the top four. The club was one day away from bankruptcy before being saved, a Steven Gerrard slip from winning the title, had one of the five best players in the world only to see him force his way to Barcelona, and have beaten numerous big clubs but fallen regularly to minnows. There have been numerous apparent dawns, all of them proving ultimately false.

Liverpool, though, have finally turned the corner. After the most difficult opening schedule in the league they sit fourth, with their play earning plaudits for its beauty and effectiveness. Liverpool are in a better place financially than they have been in decades, have competition at least two deep for every position, and are led by one of the very brightest managers in the game. They are succeeding in the present, and the clearest signs point to them doing so into the future.


Jürgen Klopp took over eight games into last season, after Brendan Rodgers was fired with his team languishing in 10th place. Without a preseason or practice time—Liverpool played the second most games among all European teams last season—and unable to buy new players, Klopp was unable to immediately put his stamp on the team, and they finished midtable. But there were hints of what was to come.


Most obviously, Liverpool reached the Europa League final, buzzsawing through Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, and Villarreal to get there. They also reached the League Cup final, comprehensively walloped Manchester City twice and Chelsea and Everton once in the league, and handed champions Leicester City one of their three losses. These successes were balanced by embarrassing losses to Newcastle, Swansea, and Watford, and a number of unconvincing draws.

Without the prospect of European play to attract players, Liverpool had what amounted to an underwhelming summer. While supposed rivals Manchester United and Chelsea were able to poach players like Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and N’Golo Kanté without being in the Champions League, Liverpool were clearly much further down in the pecking order.


They seemingly overpaid for good-but-not-great Premier League players Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum, and raided the Bundesliga for low-cost players few in England knew like Loris Karius, Ragnar Klavan, and Joel Matip. Liverpool earned so much from selling Christian Benteke, Jordon Ibe, Joe Allen, and others that they actually had a positive net spend. While that surely thrilled the accountants, supporters saw it as evidence that Liverpool lacked either the ambition or ability to attract truly world-class talent.

But the absence of European play also had its benefits. Klopp was given a full preseason to implement his trademark gegenpress, plenty of time during the season for his players to recover from the immense workrate the system requires, and no risk of a loss of focus on the league. The low-key summer meant that Liverpool frequently start 7 of 10 outfield players who were with the club last season, a level of continuity that helps make the system work.


The result, across six Premier League and two League Cup games, has been the most beautiful soccer played in England this year with a highly fluid system. Though Klopp disagrees with calling it such, on Monday Night Football he agreed that in possession Liverpool almost play a 3-7, with Jordan Henderson covering the center backs and the other seven outfield players having license to get into the box.


Klopp seems to prefer Roberto Firmino to Daniel Sturridge up top this season, which has led many observers to declare that Firmino plays a false 9, a nominal striker who drops back to gain possession and drag center backs out of position. But while Firmino does drop back, he does so as part of moving wherever he wants, interchangeable with any other attacking player and without defined offensive responsibilities.

Last weekend’s 5-1 victory over Premier League bottom-feeders Hull City is instructive. The goals came from four different players—two of them penalties converted by James Milner, the left back—and the average position for each player reveals how fluid Liverpool’s system is. Notice how far fullbacks Milner and Nathaniel Clyne advanced, or how Firmino, Mané, and Adam Lallana often received the ball in a very similar position in the right channel. This isn’t something you can easily call a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1.

Screenshot credit: Whoscored

The upshot is that the attack resembles an ever-shifting six-headed hydra. Mané, Lallana, Milner, and Philippe Coutinho are Liverpool’s joint Premier League leading scorers, with three goals apiece. Marking one player out of the game isn’t enough to stop Liverpool’s attack, and Klopp has the luxury of being able to cautiously deploy Sturridge in favorable situations when he is 100 percent fit, rather than being forced to rely upon him to jumpstart an anemic offense as in years past.


The attack flows from Klopp’s patented gegenpress, or counterpress. In brief, Liverpool press the opposing team immediately after losing the ball, reckoning that it is much easier to win the ball back during this transition period rather than after the opponent is given time to change their shape and think on the ball. As Klopp explained on Monday Night Football, the counterpress is a better offensive weapon than even the most brilliant playmaker:

“You want a playmaker in a position where he can make a genius pass and counter-pressing [creates similar situations].

“We win the ball back high on the pitch so you are close to the goal. You then are only one pass away from a really good opportunity most of the time, and it’s why I said no playmaker in the world can be as good as a counter-pressing situation.”


It is also obviously a defensive strategy, and an incredibly complex one. Liverpool players don’t sprint willy-nilly to wherever the ball is, but rather have specific assignments about which passing lanes to cut off and where to force the ball, depending upon the situation. Players have to understand their strict roles, but also communicate quickly with their teammates and adjust them for varying circumstances.

When they don’t win the ball back immediately, or when the opponent is brining it out from the back, the 9 and 10 players—usually Firmino and Mané—split the field into two, thus determining the size and shape of area that Liverpool must defend. From there they usually shut down all passing options except one, inviting the player with the ball to make the obvious pass. But this is a false choice, with Liverpool springing a trap once that ball is played.


Here is what that looks like in action:


And here is how Klopp diagrams it:


Offensively, Liverpool have scored the second most goals in the Premier League and created more chances than any team in Europe, and are learning to sustain their attack for 90 full minutes, rather than in spurts and bursts.

Defensively, they’re still a work in progress, and yet to keep a clean sheet in the Premier League. But they’ve finally sorted their personnel out, with goalkeeper Loris Karius healthy after breaking his hand in preseason, and Milner making the left back position his own. After conceding five goals in their first two games, they’ve only let in one in each of the last four, and many stem from definable individual mistakes—like fourth choice center back Lucas passing the ball directly to Jamie Vardy in Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Leicester—rather than systemic breakdowns. It was heartening to watch Chelsea attempt to assault Liverpool’s goal down 1-2, and be unable to even create a good shot.


But Liverpool were close to winning the league in both 2008-09 and 2013-14 and inevitably crashed back down to earth in subsequent seasons, you say. What’s different now is that good things are finally happening off the pitch as well.


First and most important, the Hillsborough Inquest officially found earlier this year that the deaths of 96 fans at an FA Cup match in 1989 were attributable to police error, beginning to dissipate the grief that has engulfed the club, supporters, and city of Liverpool for 27 years.

There have been more mundane developments as well, laying the ground for good things to come. After years of indecision about how to deal with Liverpool’s small and aging stadium, the first phase of Anfield’s expansion was completed earlier this month, adding over 8,000 seats and bringing its capacity to 54,074. Much like Arsenal’s move to The Emirates in 2006, the expanded capacity will help Liverpool close the revenue gap on its rivals. There are also plans afoot for a second phase of the expansion, to bring capacity to 58,000, though that’s still a number of years off and faces some challenges.


Liverpool, finally, at last have a workable transfer and loan structure. Brendan Rogers constantly clashed with the club’s transfer committee, leading to the team signing a number of players either the manager or front office was unhappy with. Klopp, on the other hand, is working with the committee, emphasizing that he retains final say on signing players but has to work within the club’s budget. They have also negotiated buyback clauses into the sales of young players, and a number academy prospects are thriving with regular playing time on loans, reportedly in part because Liverpool are insisting upon 75 percent playing time guarantees in loan contracts.

There is still some uncertainty in the air—American owners John Henry and Tom Werner are undercapitalized compared to some of the competition, and the club are reportedly a takeover target of a state-owned Chinese firm—but it is finally possible to believe that the infrastructure exists to support a team regularly competing for titles.


With the exception of whatever the hell is going on with Mamadou Sakho and maybe Alberto Moreno, there isn’t a senior Liverpool player playing poorly. On most match days the bench is made up of players you would be happy to see in the starting XI instead, players pushing every day in training to win game time. Mané and Wijnaldum are justifying their high prices, while Matip and Klavan are proving to be absolute steals. Lallana and Dejan Lovren look like players reborne under Klopp, and Coutinho and Firmino are more consistently showcasing their world-class ability.


The kids are all right, too. Scintillating youngsters like Sheyi Ojo and Ovie Ejaria are forcing their way into the team, loanees Allan Souza, Taiwo Awoniyi, and Danny Ward are ones for the future, and for the first time in recent memory there are a number of academy prospects—Harry Wilson, Ben Woodburn, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Toni Gomes, among others—worth getting excited about.

But most roads, ultimately, lead back to Jürgen Klopp, who signed a new contract through 2022 this summer. For the first time since Rafa Benítez prowled Anfield’s sidelines, Liverpool are led by an undeniably world-class manager, who has proven his abilities time and time again on the biggest stages. It is his training sessions and bond with the players that has the team in terrifying form, his tactics that have put them in positions to succeed, and his self-assuredness and enthusiasm that provide the confidence that is justified by his results.


The growing number of articles touting Liverpool’s play are couched with warnings to “whisper it,” for supporters not to get their hopes up. And it has been just six games, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that because Liverpool are Liverpool they’re going to blow it, or that this success will be as short-lived as previous successes. Liverpool have a very good team—Manchester City is the only Premier League side that is obviously better—and everything in place to stay that way for years.

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About the author

Kevin Draper

Reporter at the New York Times

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